Smooth Tony’s: Finding Buried Treasure in the Backyard

{Originally Published in The Island Guide, October 12, 2012}

One can easily forget, when strolling the streets of downtown Galveston, that the mainland is a mere three miles away. It seems entirely possible that there is some portal or wormhole positioned discreetly in the center of the causeway, and even though you may feel that you have only traveled minutes, you have actually traversed centuries and transcended a distinct, often-stereotyped Texas culture. This is perhaps why many Islanders view the link between Island and mainland as a menacing monstrosity to be utilized only when absolutely necessary.

And so it is fitting that Smooth Tony’s is the product of an Island native, for the nearly indescribable aura of this relatively undiscovered establishment provides, in true Galveston fashion, a complete and utter respite from daily life, and likewise can very easily provide a vacation within a vacation. The first time you visit Smooth Tony’s you will wonder how it is that you have never before been there. At the same time you may feel like you have been coming there your entire life.

Smooth Tony’s is simply the kind of place that beckons, with an atmosphere that draws you in and transports you to a world of tranquility, a world where the harmonies of jazz play into a peace that is contagious, a world that gives solace to those with family in the hospital as easily as it shares laughter with the locals. If these seem lofty words for a sandwich and smoothie joint, one trip to Smooth Tony’s Backyard will justify the claims entirely. In the Backyard it indeed feels that the steely architecture and stoic façade of the University of Texas Medical Branch is miles and miles away, instead of just across the street.

Tony Gonzales, the owner and namesake of this getaway, is also the author of its ambiance. Tony has an affinity for plants, artistic copper working, New Orleans style, and for transforming discarded antiques into treasures. The soothing sound of running water from various fountains about the outdoor area underscores a display of various foliage, metal works, and refurbished antiques, all lovingly made, grown, or re-made, by Tony. Even the large orange tree, the star of the Backyard, was grown from a seed of an orange used in one of the first smoothies Tony ever made. Included in the collection are a door from a house in New Orleans and an iron balcony from Bourbon Street, both of which surely feel right at home when local jazz musicians liven up a scene that could easily be mistaken for The Big Easy itself.

Smooth Tony’s also falls in step with the Island as a place of restoration and re-invention. This restaurant is yet another local business that offers proof of the circle of Island life that gracefully transforms history into a launching pad for the future. The building was originally constructed in 1890, and was home to a barber shop for forty years, from 1944 to 1984. It was then owned by an elderly resident, and Tony was contracted to repair the porch in 1995. When the resident passed away a few months later, the family contacted Tony. He agreed to purchase the building, and opened Smooth Tony’s in 1997 as a juice and smoothie bar. At the front of the building, nestled in the landscape, a red and white striped barber’s pole sits proudly and quietly to commemorate the journey and the progress rendered from the archives of Galveston history.

Soon after opening, Smooth Tony’s began to receive requests for sandwiches, burgers, and other lunch items. Tony decided that if was to expand, he “didn’t want just any burger, I wanted the best burger.” He remembered the best burger he had ever eaten, and tracked down the man whose hands had made the patty. That man was Chef Isias Amaya, who soon came on board and helped the kitchen respond to the demands and expand their menu to accommodate the burgeoning lunch interest. Thus the menu grew, as did the collection on the patio, and both are testaments to the patience and steadfastness with which Tony has slowly created and maintained the easy atmosphere and eclectic vibe. After sixteen years of business he still remarks, “This is just the beginning,” and Smooth Tony’s continues to grow, adapt, and thrive.

Occasionally Tony offers daily specials inspired by the recipes from his mother’s kitchen, but he consistently offers delicious wraps, handmade burgers, and nearly famous fish tacos. Known particularly for its lunch crowd which often forms a line out the front door and down to the sidewalk, Smooth Tony’s has extended their hours to accommodate evening crowds as well, on Thursday and Friday nights. They carry a full selection of wines and craft beers to enhance the live music, usually jazz or acoustic, and usually always in the Backyard.

A particular piece of advice may be offered to prospective diners, and that is that if you would like a quick lunch Smooth Tony’s can accommodate you, but if time is of the essence then happily eat your fare amid the rich, vintage wood and earthy feel of the dining room. If you go out to the Backyard, it is quite possible you will stay much longer than you intended.

Smooth Tony’s

415 9th St.

M-W 10:30-2:30, Th&Fr 10:30-9

www.smoothtonys.com

409.765.5200

Sandwiches, Wraps, Burgers, Beer & Wine

Backyard available for Private Parties

Dine-in and To-go .

Live Music every Thursday and Friday Night

 

Seaside Bistro: A Hidden Gem

{This article originally published in The Island Guide, September 28, 2012}

Seaside Bistro

A Hidden Gem

By Kimber Fountain

 

Seaside Bistro has been in operation for several years, hidden away in the center of The Victorian Condo Hotel at 6300 Seawall Blvd. Despite its location inside a popular vacation rental spot it has always maintained a loyal local following, which has grown tremendously since the operation and management of the Bistro was taken over by Todd MacKenzie and Thomas Fiero in late January of 2012. These two men are true Galveston entrepreneurs, focused on bringing quality goods and services to the Island. Their resume currently includes Galveston Pack & Ship, a joint venture in Galveston Island Costumes, and Lucky Lounge, and they were the proprietors of Oysters Bar & Grill on Post Office, which was closed after Hurricane Ike.

Walking up through the hotel to the Bistro almost gives you that sensation of how it must have felt in Galveston during Prohibition, to know the secret route along the back alleys to the speak-easy. (Thankfully signs clearly mark the way from the parking lot so it isn’t too mysterious.) The Garden Room is surrounded by enormous picture windows that overlook the well-landscaped atrium below. They provide a wonderful natural light and open up the room tremendously to give the effect of private patio dining, without concern for the weather. This hidden gem is the first restaurant Todd and Thomas have operated since the loss of Oysters; when they heard the business was for sale it seemed to be a natural fit for two gentlemen who love Galveston and truly appreciate the history and character of the Island.

Todd, stoic and sophisticated, is focused primarily on the business side of the partnership and the restaurant, but he lavishly praises the passion, dedication, and enthusiasm of Thomas and the joy he derives from his work in the kitchen. Indeed a dining experience at Seaside Bistro is a subtle reflection of the complementary differences of the two owners. The atmosphere is simple, a bit reserved, almost subdued, but then the food hits the table and wow. At the very sight of the dish in front of you, your mouth begins to water, and you can taste the love that went in to its preparation before you even take the first bite.

Thomas grew up in a large Italian family, and the reputation of Italians and cooking is nearly as synonymous as Texas and oil. A few of his mother’s recipes are favorites on the menu, but he believes the secret is truly in the freshness. A simple club sandwich can be extraordinary when the ingredients are fresh, and the side of vegetables almost outshines the huge portion of chicken on an entrée, so bright and fresh is their appearance.

I also appreciate the variety in their menu; they give diners a wide range of choices, which is perfect for occasions when everyone in the group is in the mood for something different. Southern style Shrimp and Grits takes its place on the menu under an unmistakably Italian selection of Chicken Cotoletta, a breaded chicken breast topped with a Tasso cream sauce and diced ham. Stuffed Flounder, a New York Strip Steak, and even Meat Loaf Roulade are prepared fresh right along with pizza, Crab Cakes, and a Cobb Salad. Desserts change often, but Mom’s bread pudding is always available.

To Thomas and Todd the mission with Seaside Bistro is really about value, and it shows in the generous portion sizes and in the quality of the ingredients, together with an incredibly reasonable price range. The breakfast menu, served all day, ranges from $3 to $8 dollars, unless you splurge on the Steak and Eggs. Entrées range from $12 to $22, and are all served with your choice of soup or salad and two side dishes. A variety of appetizers and entrée salads are available, as well. Seaside Bistro offers a full bar and liquor or wine bottle service, available in the dining room, at the pool, or in your condo.

Seaside Bistro is happy to announce they will offer a plated, full-service Thanksgiving Dinner from the hours of 11am to 4pm on Thanksgiving Day. The holiday menu is a four course festivity, with a variety of delicious, homemade options for each course. Pumpkin Soup or Shrimp Bisque to start, followed by your choice of Roasted Butternut Squash Salad, Citrus Shrimp Salad, or Field Greens. For the main course you have the option of the traditional fare, Fresh Roasted Turkey Breast with Cranberry Dressing, or for the more adventurous, a Spinach and basil Pesto Stuffed Pork Loin. Each entrée is served with four side dishes, an array of many different potatoes and vegetables are there for your choosing. You are spared your most difficult decision until the end, where you must choose between their homemade Pumpkin Pie, Pecan Pie, or Chocolate Mousse. Thanksgiving Dinner at Seaside also includes a complimentary non-alcoholic beverage (soda, iced tea, or coffee); only $27.99 per person.

In keeping the proverbial best for last, perhaps the most valuable asset of the Seaside Bistro is its vast capabilities as a private dining establishment, aside from its main dining rooms and Garden Room that can be reserved for private events. The Victorian Condo Hotel has over 10,000 square feet of space divided into thirteen different venues able to accommodate groups of any size. Along with easy access from Seawall Boulevard and a fresh, quality catering menu from Thomas’ kitchen, Seaside Bistro is an ideal choice for fundraisers, receptions, reunions, showers, and corporate meetings.

In any capacity, breakfast, lunch, holiday, or private dining, Seaside Bistro is sure to please residents and visitors alike. This is a perfect hideaway for Island locals who love their hideaways, and it offers guests hotel dining and room service without the hotel dining prices. Most importantly, the quality of the food is exceptional and consistent. Whether you dine at Seaside once a year or once a week, you will always look forward to going back.

 

Seaside Bistro

6300 Seawall Blvd., Inside the Victorian Condo Hotel

Park at the rear of the building and follow the signs

To-Go, Room Service, Catering, and Private Dining available

409.744.1447

www.seaside-bistro.com

Open Seven Days a Week, 7am to 9pm

 

Leo’s Cajun Corner: We Don’t Cook Pretty, We Just Cook Good

{This article originally appeared in The Island Guide, published September 14, 2012}

Leo’s Cajun Corner

‘We Don’t Cook Pretty, We Just Cook Good’

By Kimber Fountain

The first word that comes to mind for Leo’s Cajun Corner is authentic, in every sense of the word. Cajun cuisine is often imitated, and many times dishes are deemed such because a chef merely threw a little extra spice on the plate. That is not at all the case with Leo’s simple yet savory menu: true ‘Looziana’ style and family tradition are cooked into every bite. From the gumbo to the jambalaya to the homemade sausage, the recipes and techniques used in their kitchen and on-site smokehouse originated over one hundred years ago in the deep woods of Louisiana. Their flavor has been passed down through five generations and traveled hundreds of miles to bring the best of Cajun cuisine to Galveston Island for more than twenty years.

Leo’s serves up breakfast starting at 7am, and their regular menu is a Cajun lover’s dream come true. Riblets that melt in your mouth and absolutely superb crawfish etouffee are rounded out with homemade banana pudding, bread pudding, and carrot cake. Pork, beef, and seafood are all offered on plates or in sandwiches with varying preparations, along with a wide variety of sides and fixings. The portions are generous but not nearly as large as the flavor. Many different types of sausage, boudin, and other meats are sold in bulk, as are crawfish tails and homemade jerky.

But even more appealing than the Zydeco zest in their food is the philosophy behind this bayou-bred business. It was built upon the notion that great food does not have to be expensive, and Leo’s is committed to providing only ingredients that are fresh and never frozen, which easily makes it one of the best values in town. A comfortable yet simple dining room and a friendly, down-to-earth staff perfectly complement the broad palate of tastes offered on their menu. Rest assured that the quality is not only high but consistent, and more often than not your plate will be prepared by one of the family.

That family is led by Leo and Susan Mercantel. Their son Jody proudly attests that Susan herself is responsible for close to eighty percent of the output of the kitchen. Jody, who marks the fifth generation, began learning the intricacies of the smokehouse when he was five years old. For all of them, their fondest childhood memories are of Sunday afternoons at their respective grandparents’ homes, where the smell of the Cajun cooking wafted all the way into the woods where they played. As with any true Louisiana native, the term ‘family’ also encompasses their closest friends and neighbors. Tales of their culinary origins include seasonal travel to others’ houses to help each prepare the meats of the animals bred and raised on their own land.

As an adult Leo Mercantel found work in Lafayette as a roofer, and he and Susan often came to Galveston to vacation with Jody and his three sisters. However his true calling began when he purchased a small grocery store in which he had worked as a teen. He added all of his homemade sausages and smokehouse products to the inventory of the store, and Leo fondly recounts how many Texas folk, including several from Galveston, would drive over and load up their station wagons full of his smoked meats, all the while remarking how they could not seem to find anything of such type or quality where they lived. That store was located on a main part of Highway 165, and when the Cachada Casino was built the state purchased their property in order to expand the highway into four lanes. In their neck of the woods, smokehouses and homemade sausage were like Starbucks in a big city, on every corner. So they decided to take their talents to Galveston. The Island was not only their favorite vacation destination, but it was also a place where their food and products would surely stand out.

That was more than two decades ago, in 1991. The family graciously acknowledges the Island community that has provided their unending support, and attributes to it their longevity and staying power. But Leo’s Cajun Corner has given as much as they have received. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, it was Leo’s that was actually the very first restaurant to reopen, several days before a well-known restaurant on the seawall that is usually accredited with that distinction. The demand for prepared food was high, and so the health department generously gave them permission to cook with propane burners until the gas lines were restored. In the week after the storm they served over three thousand patrons who would form a line from the front door that stretched clear across the parking lot. Even if a person could not pay for a meal, Leo’s still fed them.

That was back when their establishment was housed in a small, 24×24 wooden building that they rented from the nuns of the Ursuline Convent. After purchasing the land they built their current building which opened in January of 2009. Although this new structure, with its clean and spacious interior, is a representation of the steady growth Leo’s Cajun Corner has enjoyed over the years, the atmosphere, service, and flavor still distinctly embody their humble beginnings as a Louisiana family that doesn’t cook pretty, they just cook good.

Dash Beardsley’s Ghost Tours of Galveston Island: History and Heroics of a Haunted Island

{This article originally appeared in The Island Guide, published July 16, 2012}

Dash Beardsley’s Ghost Tours of Galveston Island

History and Heroics of a Haunted Island

by Kimber Fountain

              Dash Beardsley came to Galveston in 1998 because he was looking for a woman, but not just any woman… He wanted to meet Miss Bettie Brown herself, heiress, artist, and socialite of Galveston Island. Miss Bettie lived in Ashton Villa (2328 Broadway), she died in Ashton Villa, and according to many, has stayed at Ashton Villa. He spent three nights there, hoping for some contact with this rebellious, spunky, and fearless woman. But she stood him up.

So, Dash began to wander the streets of Galveston, broken-hearted and forlorn, and asked shop owners and employees the intriguing question, “Do you have a ghost story for me?” The thought of creating a ghost tour had not yet even entered his mind, he was merely curious. Well it didn’t take him too long until he had around fifteen or twenty ghost stories, and this intrigued him even more than the elusive lady with whom he had begun his quest.

Upon several attempts to research Galveston and her ghost stories, Dash found very little. And thus out of intrigue and curiosity, a tour was born. After he found little to no documentation whatsoever of Galveston’s hauntings, he did as any wise man would do and he cracked open the history books. He wanted to know why Galveston was so haunted, and even more mysterious, why no one was talking about them.

This is why every patron of Dash Beardsley’s Ghost Tours of Galveston concludes the tour with an astonished awe resulting from a candid, back-door view into Galveston’s history and mystery. His Original Ghost Tour reveals Galveston Island at its finest: heroic police officers, courageous schoolmarms, and fearless soldiers of the Civil War. All people who lived for Galveston in its heyday, who died with Galveston amid its tragedies, and who have stuck around, waiting to see if maybe, just maybe, we will be the generation that will make the Island grand again.

Shykatz Bakery & Deli: Feeding the Faith

{This article originally appeared in the Island Guide, published August 31, 2012}

ShyKatZ Deli & Bakery:

Feeding the Faith

By Kimber Fountain

As the terms deli and bakery together may suggest, ShyKatZ is that perfect balance of salty and sweet, both in form and in flavor. Much like the duality between the sandy, vibrant seawall and the lolling historic downtown of Galveston, their rich, savory breakfast, crisp salads, and superb sandwiches are distinctly coupled with decadent desserts and an array of sugary delights. And in the same way the welcoming, soul-filled ambiance of ShyKatZ has risen from the hearts of two women who have known adversity, and defeated it. From the story of its beginning, to the décor, to the food, ShyKatZ Deli & Bakery is distinct in its graceful representation of the spirit of the Island.

Kathryne Kearns and Shyra Leger (pronounced Le-jay) met in 2006 in the Woodlands, and soon after the dream of ShyKatZ was born out of a mutual love for cooking and a passionate desire to feed the hungry. Long before they ever opened their doors, the sign that now hangs over the entrance to their deli was once hanging on the living room wall. Originally they decided that Austin would be the best choice for their new venture, until a guy named Ike showed up on Galveston’s doorstep. The aftermath and destruction left by this unwanted visitor was enough to drive many people, families, and businesses, off of Galveston Island for good. Kat and Shy, however, are of the other variety, the people who see any challenge as an opportunity and all obstacles as reasons to believe. So, in 2010 they quit their jobs and moved to Galveston with nigh more than one big dream and two week’s pay.

Through a series of setbacks and struggles that would have made many cut and run, the two determined ladies kept their dream, and their faith, alive. They continued to cook and to bake with whatever supplies they could get their hands on, and after they fed themselves they would feed their friends and those less fortunate. To each gift of goodness they attached a business card and a promise to open soon. Their tenacity and refusal to give up manifested and as they will gladly testify, Providence provided and ShyKatZ opened its doors on May 26, 2010, with just over one dollar in its business bank account. Since that day this quaint and unique eatery has sustained itself, and Shy and Kat continue to fill bellies and feed souls.

ShyKatZ offers a wide variety of high quality, homemade dishes along with an atmosphere and service that give the feel of home or grandma’s house. Under Shy’s direction in the kitchen absolutely everything is made to order, nothing is par-cooked or pre-sautéed. Their sandwiches are made using only Boar’s Head meats and cheeses; try one on their French, wheat, or white bread that is baked daily in-house. If a craving for breakfast should strike at two in the afternoon, never fear. ShyKatZ serves breakfast all day long, and rumor has it that their “Biscuits-N-Gravy” is the best of its kind on the Island. And don’t forget to seriously consider the ever-changing dessert presentation, also made from scratch in-house by Kat herself.

Much of the menu is inspired by the people in their lives, and many of their dishes are named after fellow Islanders or family members. If you order Granny or Pawpaw’s breakfast you will enjoy the favorite morning meal of Shy’s grandparents; the Jeff Salad is a Chef Salad named in honor of the gentleman who eats it almost every day for lunch. JJ’z Junior Menu, “for our Little Angels under 10,” was inspired by Kat’s grandchildren, and the Johanna burger is a tribute to the story of their friend Johanna and the lengths she would go to get a burger.

Indeed the most difficult decisions when visiting ShyKatZ will be choosing what to order and how in the world you will manage to save room for dessert (because you must), but it will be easy to feel comfortable. The most alluring facet of this humble eatery tucked away on a neighborhood street is its embodiment of everything Islander. Down to the furniture and seasonal salt and pepper shakers, ShyKatZ is a quintessential Galveston small business that reflects the eclectic, diverse, and easy-going population of locals. Their staff is friendly and accommodating, offering each patron personalized service that goes the extra mile beyond the counter. They are even on Island time, as the hours posted on the front door unabashedly state that they open at 7-ish.

One of the many reasons why so many love Galveston, and why thousands flock to our salty shores year after year, is because of the unique opportunity to support locally owned businesses and to enjoy all of the variety they allow. Amid the onslaught of fast food, corporate chains, and cookie-cutter products so widely and easily available, perhaps it is wise to often tread off the well-worn path and find a place with personality and heart. Anyone can serve a hot meal, but few accomplish it with the warmth, charm, and inspiration of ShyKatZ.

ShyKatZ Deli & Bakery

Breakfast and Lunch served all day long

Monday-Saturday 7am-3pm

409.770.0500

1528 Avenue L

(Corner of 16th and Ave. L)

Street Parking

Daily Blue Plate Specials

Carry Out/Box Lunches/Custom Catering

www.ShyKatZ.com

Owners, Kathryne Kearns and Shyra Leger

Good Morning Gal-ve-ston! (you gotta say it like Robin Williams…)

I do not pretend to make the presumption that people actually want to read what I write, but I do know that I have a lot to say, and I prefer to write what I have to say than say what I have to say.

This blog will primarily consist of issues on and around Galveston Island, challenges and opinions I face and form every day. I have two main dreams in life, with lots of little sub-dreams surrounding them. I will make films for a living, and I will see Galveston Island restored to her former prominence and glory. Now to really understand that last statement, you would have to know at least a little about Galveston and her intensely rich history, but lets just say this was a swingin’, rockin’ place, oh, up until about fifty years ago.

I’ll give you a brief re-cap. Fast forward through Bernarndo de Galvez (our namesake), the Karankawa tribe, and Jean Lafitte. In 1821 the US Navy sent a warship over to our paradise shores and pretty much let Lafitte know that his presence here was a nuisance. Over the next eighty years, Galveston grew and grew some more, and didn’t really stop growing. Our status as a port city afforded us many benefits, and became indicative of a status and culture unlike any other in Texas. Because of our great location and easily accessed harbor, along with the cotton boom and an extremely organized pier system that allowed easy ingress and egress to our city streets, commerce was crazy. The increase of commerce meant that we had to have banks to hold all the money we were making, we had to invent insurance to protect it all, and we felt the need to start a mansion-building contest just to try and outdo each other. Being a port city also meant that a lot of people from all parts of the world graced our shores at all times, along with the bawdy and lascivious sailors that got them here. And so we enveloped many different cultures, realized that booze and brothels were profitable, and emerged with a much more relaxed, diverse, and forward-thinking population than the demographics of the rest of the Bible Belt. In fact during the years leading up to the turn of the twentieth century we were even at the forefront of modern technology, completely wired for electricity by 1885, and home to many firsts in Texas, including the first real estate firm, the first jewelry store, the first insurance company, the first producer of “artificial ice,” the first and longest standing operational library, and so on and so forth.

Fast forward, one hundred and twelve years later, and the local population is divided into two groups.  I despise labels but for the sake of reference I will admit I am an IBC (Islander  By Choice). The other, more distinguished group here, is affectionately referred to as BOIs (Born On the Island). Here is where my afore mentioned abhorrence of labels really comes to light. I think it is great that people are proud of being a BOI, I really do. If I was a BOI I would be proud of that, too. But there is a discrepancy. A small yet powerful subset of the BOI population reveres our rich Island history and the people who created it so much that they have become blinded by the pride of who we were. So much so that they have in a way bastardized this pride so that their prejudices exclude anyone who wants to help Galveston Island but was not  born here.

 Funny part is that this convoluted pride is completely abject and conradictory to the spirit of the Island upon which they base it! If the original BOIs were as close-minded and clique-ish then guess what? None of us would be here and Galveston Island would still be nothing but a flat marshy sandbar with Karankawa running around everywhere. Not only that, but some BOIs further perpetuate the insanity by exploiting their birthright, yet do not, as they say, “put their money where their mouth is.” One particular BOI foundation that shall remain nameless,  in 2011 donated over twenty million dollars off the island, compared to a mere two hundred thousand dollars to organizations on the Island.

Now before you get out your BOI carved driftwood and head for my office to show this crazy IBC who’s boss, hear me out. I am not, by any means, lumping all BOIs into this category. One of my dearest friends Ms. Weaver is a hardcore BOI but she loves anyone who loves the Island, despite their place of origin.  And there are many others who have welcomed my efforts and my passion for this Paradise with open arms. But we must not allow those who defy the spirit of Island culture with their disallusioned pride in who we were to prevent us from becoming who we can become.

Why are we living in the past? Why is a rich history enough, when recent decade after decade we have denied the legacy of resiliency and perseverance, thinking it’s enough to just appreciate where we came from, instead of using our legacy to empower us and take us where we need to go?!

One BOI sat in my office and said, “Don’t try to save Galveston, she doesn’t want to be saved.” Bull. Shit. This Island, this beautiful diverse Paradise so paradoxically located along the shores of one of the most conservative states in the US, doesn’t only want to be saved, she deserves to be saved.

Island Beautiful is a non-profit organization that I founded in May of this year. Inspired by the faith and determination of the survivors of The Great Storm of 1900, my dream, my hope, my wish, my passion, my goal, is to annihilate the beauracracy that is holding our City and our Island down, and work tirelessly to beautify and enrich this Island and her people that I hold so dear.

Peace, Love, and Palm Trees,

Kimber